Sino-U.S. Cyber Pact Reveals Failure of U.S.-China Policy

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If Barack Obama signs a landmark cyberspace agreement with visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping this week in Washington, D.C., it will be hailed as evidence that Beijing and Washington can forge an adult, working relationship on a critical security issue. In reality, the very need to negotiate such a pact reveals the failure of America’s decades-long China policy and the inability of the U.S. government to understand China’s evolving threat to U.S. interests.

Step back from any discussion of the specifics of such an agreement. Consider instead the state of relations that must hold between two nations for their top leadership to even contemplate a pact that, in the words of the New York Times, would embrace “a commitment by each country that it will not be the first to use cyber weapons to cripple other’s critical infrastructure during peacetime …” Not wartime, mind you, but peacetime. Why should such an issue even need to be addressed between two nations that had any type of working relationship based on trust?

Note, too, the implications of the above formulation. First, there apparently exists a need to ensure that one country does not try to cripple the vital infrastructure of one of its largest trade partners. Why would two nations without possibly irreconcilable differences, or at the least a trust deficit of epic proportions, even be contemplating such a move, and therefore have to try and prevent it?

Secondly, a sweeping pact of this kind avoiding mutually assured economic destruction would not, apparently, prevent the manifold cyber aggression already practiced by China against the United States, such as the theft of tens of millions of Americans’ personal identification and the siphoning off of billions of dollars of industrial secrets. This agreement, both startling in its apocalyptic nature and toothless in the face of actual cyber theft and mischief, is the worst of both worlds. 

The foreign policy establishment and Beltway punditocracy will undoubtedly spin this as a victory for diplomacy, shared interests, and responsible statesmanship. They will assure the public that such an agreement is just a beginning, an innovative and farsighted approach to responding to a vital threat that barely existed a decade ago. That may well be so. Yet why should such a vital threat even exist today?

The only answer is the failure of America’s China policy. For a full generation, since Nixon’s opening to China in the 1970s (and some would argue long before that), the United States has held a remarkably steady position vis-à-vis China: We have done everything in our power to help it become a great power and to integrate it into the global economy and political world. As generations of Westerners have done, Americans have viewed China as a market of dreams and a potential geopolitical partner equal to none. 

Be it through trade policy (which has benefitted the American consumer as much as the Chinese exporter and skilled worker) or political initiatives such as China’s entry into the United Nations and World Trade Organization, or the more recent Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Repeated Chinese transgressions of global rules in both economics and the security realms have been consistently ignored by successive U.S. administrations in the name of amity and commerce.

The result? A China that feels no compunctions about rampant spying on American private business and citizens. A China that increases its military budget every year for a quarter-century, building weapons designed specifically to attack U.S. forces. A China that bullies and coerces neighbors over disputed maritime territory and builds islands to extend its power projection capabilities. And yet the U.S. president continues to act as though it is business as usual with a China whose troubling behavior grows commensurate with its objective strength.

No sane observer wants conflict to break out between China and the United States. Yet, surely historians in decades to come will wonder how Washington so consistently misread Chinese leaders and their goals. One might think that by the time the need for a cyberspace peace treaty was recognized, that U.S. policy toward China would also be seen as having failed.

The recognition of such a failure does not automatically point the way forward. Yet it should warn us not to continue along our current path. Not only will our cybersecurity pact with China not be worth the paper it is written on, it may go down in history as the Kellogg-Briand Pact of the 21st century: a noble gesture that optimistically ignored reality and trusted in the goodwill of those whose actions undermined the security we sought to protect in the first place. 

Michael Auslin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Asia Bubble (forthcoming, Yale).

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